At Verney Road School in Shepparton, Principal Janet Gill Kirkman explains how her school's new peer observation approach is connecting staff, supporting their development and benefiting students.
Effective peer observation is a tool teachers and educational support staff (ES) can use in professional learning. Verney Road School Principal Janet Gill Kirkman oversees almost 200 students with a disability and trying various peer observation models, Janet asked her staff to think about how to use peer observation in a meaningful way at their school.
'When we began with peer observations we actually didn't get it right because our teachers were saying they were doing it because they had to, and there's no purpose in doing it that way.'
'If we teach or support in classrooms with closed doors, we can't improve. And with every piece of teaching that we look at, whether it's our own teaching or observing someone else, it builds our capability.'
Introducing a new approach to peer observation
The school's new approach to peer observation was developed by its teachers and a visiting mentor principal, and features teachers and ES using their mobile phones to film two to three minute videos of a focus area of their own classroom practice .
The videos are then used to guide conversations between buddies about what each person observed and heard.
'The first part of the process is that teachers and the ES staff find a buddy. And this buddy needs to be a trusted colleague. It's someone who they're willing to take feedback from and give feedback to.'
'The value in the videos is that it allows the footage to be discussed and viewed multiple times during the conversation.'
Peer observation in action: A step-by-step approach
Identifying your development needs and potential collaborators
Francesca Ahearn explains her most recent experiences with peer observation and how it supported her teaching of a particular student. 'So at the start of the year when you're thinking about what your focus might be, you have to think really carefully about who a good person to work with might be.'
In her most recent peer observation cycle, Francesca buddied with Early Intervention Teacher Carolyn West, due to their shared experience in teaching the student who has complex needs.
'So I identified a need within my classroom. I drilled down to a particular situation that I experienced as the most challenging.'
'There are people within our school who are deemed to have expertise in certain areas, and they might be sought out for things like communication, sensory needs, speciality areas like that.'
Set goals for the partnership
The buddies work together to understand and reflect on each other's goals, because this step helps to guide the post observation conversation.
'Francesca wanted to look at some strategies that she was using for a particular child. The next step was to be able to have that professional dialogue with me as to whether those strategies were working, and then where she could go from there with building that child's capacity,' said Carolyn.
Carolyn asked Francesca to observe her teaching a student with similarly complex learning and sensory needs, with a focus on the strategies she was using with him.
Building expertise in instructional practice through authentic observation and reflection
In this stage of peer observation at Verney Road School, buddies discuss the focus of the observation. This may be a problem of practice or an area they would like to focus on.
'[Peer observation] was previously quite a limited process where you could really only give suggestion and feedback for what you see in the classroom there and then.'
'The new model takes away that nervousness because you have a lot of control over what you're filming and what you're choosing to present to the other person,' said Francesca.
Collaborative reflection is key to success
Teachers and ES staff at Verney Road School find value in the new approach to peer observation. As they work with their buddies, they reflect on time spent in the classroom, the approaches they use with students and how this learning may inform their future practice.
'The impact that you can have on student's learning is incredibly powerful by being able to watch your own teaching performance and get feedback from others is invaluable,' said Carolyn.
'In the last four years I have learnt more about myself as a teacher than I had in my previous 20 plus years prior to that.'
Tools you can use in your peer observations
Research shows that when done well, peer observation including feedback and reflection has a high impact on improving professional practice. It can also be an important part of a teacher's professional development and is one element that teachers may choose to focus on during their professional practice days.
Resources, tools and case studies of effective peer observation practice have been developed to support schools to develop effective models, like that seen at Verney Road.
Explore peer observation resources
Introduction from Mary Jean Gallagher and a Professional Practice Note